One of the great certainties about life in Uruguay is that, well, there are no certainties. Instead, everywhere you look, there are ambiguities, complexities, idiosyncracies and shades of grey. Only in Uruguay could the Estadio Charrua, which supposedly pays homage to the country’s indigenous peoples, be situated in, of all places, the Parque Rivera: named after the man more responsible than anyone else for their extermination.
And maybe only in Uruguay could a crisis this complex, this convoluted, involving this many different actors, have developed: to the point whereby it’s now threatening to engulf the sport. As they say in Uruguay, es una rosca. As they say in England, it is one great big unholy mess.
A mess centred upon big TV money and violence in football; on power plays and populism; on the endemic links in this country between its national sport (sorry, its national religion) and its political leaders; and which, in an election year, has taken down the best, cleanest, least corrupt leader of the AUF in generations. Sadly, Sebastian Bauza and his Executive Council are likely to be only the initial fall guys of this crisis. The game has barely even kicked off yet.
Hooliganism has plagued Uruguayan club football for many years now. Once upon a time, families could watch Peñarol and Nacional in safety and confidence; but those days have long since passed. Instead, the club game has mutated ever more towards its Argentinian counterpart: increasingly lawless, dangerous to watch or at times even to participate in, ineptly policed, and controlled by ruthless, wealthy club Presidents and media moguls on the one hand; the Barras Bravas on the other.
Caught in the middle has been a very well-meaning but hopelessly weak, impoverished association: which to its immense credit, has endeavoured to wrest power away from the country’s biggest, most self-interested clubs; establish continuity, stability and a conveyor belt for the national team at all levels; sort out the grassroots structure of the game here; and perhaps above all, even to isolate the always lurking, ever insidious presence of one Francisco ‘Paco’ Casal. Given the odds it faced, the failure of Bauza’s Executive Committee was surely always inevitable; but the fall-out from its departure will be grim indeed.
It’s easy to assume that the origins of this crisis lay in the veritable (though largely unreported) party which awaited scores of Nacional fans at the hands of local hooligans after their side’s 4-0 defeat away to Newell’s Old Boys in February; following which, they vowed revenge. Certainly, this was a key factor which caused the return match to be moved to the Estadio Centenario; as the authorities sought in vain to maintain some degree of control.
Yet in truth, it’s much more complex and goes back far, far further than that. Because as readers of these pages will know, it’s not only Nacional supporters who’ve disgraced themselves in recent times. So have Peñarol’s; so have Danubio’s; so even have many players for the Manyas and Bolsos: including, most recently, during a friendly for heavens sake.
And so, for that matter, have those in charge of the Big Two as well. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that as historic standard bearers of the Uruguayan game, Peñarol and Nacional would display at least a modicum of responsibility for the hooligans amongst their support; demonstrate at least a degree of regard for the overall health of the sport here; have a long term strategy for the future too? But neither do.
Instead, both are consumed by petty politics and chronic short-termism: kowtowing to the thugs amongst their followers, and pursuing greedy power-grabs for themselves, regardless of the consequences. In short, their behaviour is that of two bald men fighting over a comb.
So it was that, as El Tanque Sisley’s match with Peñarol was moved to the Centenario on grounds of security, the response of Nacional President, Eduardo Ache, wasn’t to acknowledge the peculiar circumstances and deepening crisis of violence facing the authorities. Oh no. Instead, it was to complain bitterly of unfair treatment. Why should we have to visit Wanderers, pondered Ache, while the Manyas are granted an extra home game? Why, he might’ve added, have their hooligans been rewarded – but not ours?
As a minimum, Ache’s comments – in which he piled opprobrium onto the AUF and especially the police – upped the ante at the most sensitive of moments. It’s not difficult to conclude that, ahead of the grudge return match with Newell’s, many Nacional fans will have thought to themselves: “Hey – here’s a perfect way of guaranteeing our team constant home games for the rest of the year too!” The rest was disgrace.
Yet the real reason for Ache’s wrath had considerably less to do with football than we might assume. This, of course, is an election year; and he is on the right wing of the Partido Colorado. For many years now, the clarion call of opposition politicians has been “insecurity, insecurity!”: wailing how things have never been worse, lambasting a desperately poorly trained, inadequately resourced police force.
Here, then, was an opportunity to undermine an association which had dared to maintain a semblance of equal power amongst all top division clubs and was threatening to do Nacional out of the TV riches it craved; curry favour amongst the followers, both violent and non-violent, of his club; and gain votes by drawing attention to the failings of the police. As any good populist would, he seized it.
Not, mind you, that the behaviour of Nacional’s bitter rivals has been any better. During the ill fated Copa Antel match I mentioned above, many Manya players seemed intent on apeing the thugs watching them on the terraces: no football please, we’re Peñarol. And of course, the club itself has been involved in a protracted battle over recent months with CONMEBOL, regarding its handling of continental television rights. Peñarol v CONMEBOL; Juan Pedro Damiani v Eugenio Figueredo; Tenfield and Gol TV v Fox Sports.
In presenting a petition of criminal complaint against CONMEBOL, signed by 7 fellow Uruguayan clubs (though significantly, not Nacional), Peñarol began to incur the decided displeasure of FIFA; and further destabilised the precarious situation facing Bauza back home.
For Bauza has made every attempt to distance his association and the Uruguayan game as a whole from Casal’s nefarious, threatening, tyrannical grip. Unable to find other viable options, the AUF has not been able to remove Tenfield’s influence completely – Realpolitik has generally prevailed instead – but during this four year glory run of La Celeste, the formerly ubiquitous Paco has been nowhere to be seen. Until, that is, now.
Because Casal has at least had the sense to remain close to President Jose Mujica, a man so in thrall to rags to riches stories that one sometimes wonders whether he’d have viewed Pablo Escobar as a sweet, innocent, poor boy made good; and late this year, with the economy here beginning to hit trouble and the peso falling at an increasing rate, the Frente Amplio have an election to win.
Thus was the Minister of Tourism and Sport, Hector Lescano, a key ally of Bauza in his battle with Casal, and proponent of transparency in television rights, suddenly ejected from his post by Mujica in May 2012 with little credible explanation.
Lescano had sought to stop third party ownership of players, a monumental blight on the game here; and prevent intermediaries from simultaneously pursuing sports broadcasting for profit. It was pretty obvious who this brave, commendable man had in his sights in all this.
And thus was Casal reportedly behind the group of eight or nine clubs who threatened a vote of no confidence against Bauza’s increasingly embattled administration in February. Why? Because of Bauza’s desire to remove the clause allowing Tenfield to match the best bid for the 2018 World Cup; and indeed, for the AUF to wrench control over Uruguayan football and image rights back from Casal.
The last time the association had clashed with Tenfield over TV rights, Casal had threatened Bauza. Already out in the cold in CONMEBOL, he was not about to be lose his domestic power base as well. With the Executive Committee under attack from all sides, the walls were now closing in.
What, though, of Mujica? What of the accusations of government interference over recent days, which sent everyone into such a panic following Bauza’s fall on Monday? To understand the relationship between politics and football here, you have to understand Uruguayan society itself. Football and society are inextricably linked in a manner maybe unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
Every man and his dog has an opinion on La Celeste; the entire country comes to a complete halt whenever the team plays a match; and with the political parties only a representation of the society which they are drawn from, inevitably, many politicians are heavily involved in the sport: some for good; others, not so good.
Mujica, of course, has often expressed studied disinterest in this mere game; but like any politician, he’s always known which side his bread’s buttered on. As long as Paco is around, Pepe and his party will always play ball. Thus came the fateful decision to withdraw the police from the Centenario and Gran Parque Central last weekend: made, I think, for two reasons.
The first was to effectively remove any remaining ground from underneath Bauza: but not, contrary to the rumours which spread like wildfire following the latter’s departure, in a way so overt that it would incur FIFA’s divine disdain. The second, though, was even more cynical: and a horrendous reflection of the ideas of those in prominent positions in his government.
Around the world, it’s naturally been assumed that the police were withdrawn in order to protect them: that this represented the final measure of a government exhausted by the violence endemic in the country’s footballing scene, and seeking to safeguard its forces in any way it could. Yet I rather suspect the opposite to be the case. For in the aftermath of the dreadful scenes at the Centenario exactly a week ago, the media’s attention was as much on alleged police over-reaction and apparent brutality as the behaviour of the home supporters.
To place this in context: last year, video footage of a shoot-out in Pocitos, in which Carlos Rodriguez, a policeman, was shot dead in cold blood, was televised on news programmes. It revealed the police to be hopelessly ill trained and ill equipped; yet the response of Eduardo Bonomi, this country’s ludicrous apology for an Interior Minister, was to declare that they had in fact been “adequately armed”, and to complain once more of media sensationalism.
Sadly, this was only in keeping with a government which routinely fails to arm or pay its police force remotely properly – to the extent that police officers invariably end up living alongside criminals, who threaten them and their families if they try to do their jobs – refuses on point of principle to imprison or properly punish any murderer under the age of 18; and has even been known to blame murders and violent crime on the ‘consumer society’: because ‘the poor want things too’.
So absurd is this mentality, held by old men like Bonomi (a former academic), or Mujica (who has never held a non-political job, never had children, and appears not to harbour the remotest conception of the actual impact of many of his government’s policies on the people), that the administration here often seems awfully close to siding with criminals; or at least, with the poor. Because the latter represents its core constituency; and from the latter, most of the hooligans plaguing Uruguayan football are derived too.
Thus by withdrawing the police last weekend, Mujica could also appear in some strange way to be sympathising with the ‘victims’ of apparent ‘police brutality’. It even goes a long way towards explaining why the government has essentially done nothing about hooliganism for so long. Politics here really are that strange.
All of which brings us back to the complaints of Ache: who has played and is playing politics every bit as much as his sworn enemy, Mujica. And it also brings us to the future. Post-Bauza, what now?
Well, there is one piece of good news. The idea that, two months out from a World Cup in which Uruguay hope to recapture the glories of 1950, FIFA will now kick out one of the tournament’s biggest drawcards is patently absurd.
First, there is no direct evidence that government interference brought Bauza down: instead, as I’ve explained, it’s only indirect, largely circumstantial, and more a consequence of how enmeshed this sorry saga is than anything else. And second, Bauza’s administration did things so differently, so much more transparently, than most other associations in this continent that FIFA will probably be pleased that he’s gone.
But the prognosis beyond that could scarcely be more bleak. Whether overtly or covertly, Ache will now either take control of the AUF or enjoy far greater influence within it than hitherto: as, in all likelihood, will his club, which may join the so-called ‘Group of 7’ smaller clubs who endeavoured to bring Bauza’s Committee down in February. If it does, the power which these clubs will wield within the newly formed executive will be considerable, with many changes in the structure of the game here – most of them based on self-interest – likely to follow.
Casal will remain isolated in CONMEBOL, but be hugely boosted in Uruguay: and his influence will grow exponentially as a result. Those of us who recall the appalling cliques and divided, horribly under-achieving Celeste squads when he last enjoyed such eminence can only fear the worst.
Any prospect for a more holistic, bottom-up approach to the sport here has now gone; nothing will be done about hooliganism either. And above all, the calm, restraining influence of a moderate, enlightened administration charged with keeping the peace in one of the most internecine footballing environments anywhere in the world – an environment which, as I hope this article has demonstrated, amounts to a spider’s web of competing interests in all areas of Uruguayan society – has disappeared for good.
A good man is gone from Uruguayan football. Exit Bauza: no doubt muttering to himself, “Après moi, le déluge”.